Cheat Sheet: Eagles ‘D’ Vs. Cowboys Offense

Eagles LB DeMeco Ryans on field hyping crowd

If you missed the first cheat sheet, click here. Now, onto 10 things to know about how the Eagles’ defense matches up with the Cowboys’ offense.

1. The Eagles got breaks in Weeks 5 and 6, facing two of the worst-performing offenses in the NFL. But this week that changes as they face a Cowboys unit that ranks eighth, according to Football Outsiders. Dallas is second in scoring (30.5 PPG). Tony Romo and company dropped 31 on the Redskins Sunday night and put up 48 in a losing effort against the Broncos the previous week. The Eagles limited the Bucs to three points in the second half last week and came up with three interceptions in the fourth quarter against the Giants. Overall, the Eagles have the 30th-ranked defense, per Football Outsiders. They are 29th in scoring, allowing 29.8 points per game.

2. Romo is one of only three quarterbacks (Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers) who has completed better than 70 percent of his passes. Romo is at 70.2 percent and is averaging 7.8 yards per attempt (ninth). His 14 touchdowns are tied for second, and Romo has only been intercepted three times. Overall, the Cowboys’ passing offense is sixth in Football Outsiders’ rankings. The Eagles are 30th.

3. The Cowboys don’t chuck it downfield as much as you might think. Only 8.3 percent of Romo’s passes have traveled 20+ yards from the line of scrimmage, per Pro Football Focus. That ranks 23rd. His average pass attempt travels 7.08 yards; that ranks 31st. For the most part, it’s been a short-to-intermediate, high-efficiency passing attack. That’s not great news for Billy Davis and company. The Eagles’ defense generally focuses on not letting defenders get behind them. That often leaves the intermediate throws wide-open for relatively easy completions. The Cowboys are unlikely to change their strategy. Rivers and Manning both had a lot of success with their high-efficiency passing attacks against the Eagles. Not only is it an effective way to move the ball, but it keeps the Birds’ offense off the field.

“I think one of the biggest things is we are not giving up those deep ones and that’s what one of the main goals was,” Davis said. “The intermediate ones we’ve now got to tighten down on. The ones that are getting to the 15 to the 25s, that immediate coverage ‑‑ I do believe the guys are getting a better understanding of the deep to short and coming up. And then when they do take the check-down ‑‑ again, those are in zones… if I want to take everybody, put a body on a body, I’ll go to the mans. But right now I think we are growing in the direction of getting tighter in the intermediate part of our zones and that’s what has to improve.”

4. Romo’s primary target has been Dez Bryant. He leads the team with 34 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns. He has six grabs of 20+ yards and is tied for fifth in the NFL with five red zone catches. The previous point applies to Bryant too. Per STATS, Inc., 70.6 percent of his catches have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

“We face a couple of them but we’ve got to be great with our one‑on‑one matchups of both corners,” Davis said. “Fletch [Bradley Fletcher] and Cary [Williams] have to be great in their individual coverage on them because they will have ‑ you can’t double a guy every play. So they will have plenty of times where they’ve got to just handle that and we will get help to them and zone over the top of them and use all of the different tools to help when you stop a star receiver.”

5. Fletcher has been a favorite target of opposing quarterbacks. He’s produced mixed results, but overall has been better than expected with 10 passes defensed, tied for second-most in the NFL.  Williams and Bryant have a history. Last year, Bryant thought Williams should have been called for pass interference on a 2-point conversion, but didn’t get a flag when the Ravens played the Cowboys.

“He needs to step up and be a man,” Williams told reporters at the time. “You can’t be a baby about stuff. You’ve got to man up. It’s one-on-one. Mano-a-mano. I got you. Sometimes you’re going to win. Sometimes you’re going to lose.

“You’ve just got to be a man and accept responsibility, give credit where credit is due. If it was me, I’d say, you know what, he made the play and I didn’t. Bottom line. Don’t complain and look for a flag, man.”

6. The Eagles will also have to account for tight end Jason Witten. The veteran has 31 catches on 48 targets for 340 yards and three touchdowns. Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans will need to be better than they have been in coverage. Miles Austin has battled a hamstring injury, but is listed as probable. Rookie Terrance Williams has caught 18 of 21 passes thrown his way. He’s a big-play threat, averaging 17.2 yards per reception. Overall, opponents are completing 63.9 percent of their passes against the Eagles (21st) and averaging 7.5 yards per attempt (21st). The Birds have allowed 13 touchdown passes, tied for fourth-most. And despite the focus on not allowing the deep ball, they have given up 23 pass plays of 20+ yards, tied for fifth-most. Nickel corner Brandon Boykin has been playing lights-out, and Davis only sent him on a blitz once last week. Nate Allen had one of his better games of the season vs. Tampa, and Earl Wolff continues to be up and down. Patrick Chung is doubtful after re-aggravating his shoulder injury last week.

7. One of the biggest factors in the Cowboys’ success offensively has been their offensive line. Trent Cole has no sacks and three hurries. He’ll get matched up against left tackle Tyron Smith.

“I think Trent will have a breakout game and you’ll see the work that he’s put in and I think that will happen with our defensive line in general,” Davis said. “I think we are getting close.  We’ve had a couple games in a row with intentional groundings and different interceptions. Again, it’s a quarterback’s choice when I’m under duress: Do I throw it away, do I throw it into coverage, or do I take the sack?  And right now, quarterbacks are choosing the other, but those sacks will come. I think the guys are getting closer and closer.”

Fletcher Cox had his best game of the season against Tampa with five QB hurries. The Eagles need him to build on that performance this week. Cedric Thornton continues to play well. And Vinny Curry played a season-high 25 snaps last week. The Eagles moved to a four-down nickel look last week. Given how much the Cowboys pass, look for that to continue this week. Dallas also added first-round pick Travis Frederick at center and free agent Brian Waters at right guard.

8. One thing the Eagles have going for them is that Dallas is a one-dimensional offense. That one dimension is really good, but the Cowboys are unlikely to do much on the ground. They are averaging 20.3 rushing attempts per game (28th) and will likely be without DeMarco Murray (doubtful). Rookie Joseph Randle, a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, is likely to start. He has 11 carries for 17 yards. Overall, the Cowboys are 12th in rushing, per Football Outsiders. The Eagles have been 16th against the run. Opponents are averaging 4.0 yards per carry against the Eagles (tied for 17th). According to stats tracked by coaches, Ryans has been in on 73 tackles; that’s 25 more than any other Eagles defender. STATS, Inc. tracks impact tackles, which are stops made within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage. Ryans has eight, tied for fourth in the league.

9. Eagles coaches have stressed finishing to the defense this week. Romo is a master at extending plays and keeping his eyes downfield. When pass-rushers have a chance to bring him down, they must do so. And defensive backs have to be ready for receivers adjusting their routes when Romo starts scrambling.

“It really comes down, when you study him over time, he’s either really hot or really off, and sometimes it’s through the course of one single game,” Davis said. “He may be first-half hot, second-half cold and vice-versa. You have to play him all the way through four quarters.

“I think you’ve got to challenge the receivers and challenge him to find the opening and keep moving it on him. I think he’ll make some plays and I think he’ll make some mistakes.”

10. The Eagles have forced three-and-outs 15.7 percent of the time (30th), per Football Outsiders. …The Cowboys are fourth in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns 65.2 percent of the time. The Eagles are 21st in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns 59.1 percent of the time. …The Cowboys are 11th in third-down offense, converting 39.1 percent of the time. The Eagles are 27th, allowing conversions 43.0 percent of the time.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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